Malls fuel retail surge
Twenty-seven years ago, sitting along a gravel township road in the middle of fields, West Acres Regional Shopping Center opened its doors for the first time.
"On the land where Carl Rabanus raised oats, wheat, corn and barley for 34 years, the mirage has become a reality," The Forum wrote on the eve of the Fargo mall's grand opening.
"The deep, black, fertile soil of glacial Lake Agassiz lies covered beneath parking lot asphalt, and like a dot on a domino, the West Acres building awaits its customers and a harvest of another sort."
At the time, some considered Bill Schlossman's 15-acre innovation so ludicrous they labeled it Schlossman's Folly.
Now an estimated 10 million people visit West Acres every year.
The modern concept of stores sharing the same roof first arrived in Fargo-Moorhead in 1950.
That's when Fargo city leaders approved plans for a "California-type shopping center" - a strip mall - on South University Drive.
Three years later, the Southside Shopping Center opened as only the second business on University Drive south of 13th Avenue. Within five years, 29 businesses sprouted in that section of town.
With Southside's success, strip malls soared.
In the next decade, construction included Northport and South Plaza shopping centers in Fargo and Center Avenue Plaza and Brookdale Mall in Moorhead.
Brookdale's first press release in 1961 cheerily announced:
"The consumer will enjoy the gay carnival atmosphere, the green areas at the entrances echoing the village green or pedestrian mall ... Ample parking will be a by-word, and the consumer will be King and Queen when shopping at Brookdale Shopping Center."
The notion of the modern-day enclosed mall arrived in 1963 with Mayfair Shopping Center, now called Holiday Mall, billed as "the only fully enclosed air conditioned shopping center in the area."
Some scoffed that all these new-fangled shopping centers would draw customers.
Local mall pioneer Richard W. Anderson, who helped start four shopping centers in Fargo-Moorhead, recalled in 1978:
"It was a natural thing to do, but we were told that everything would fail. There were vultures standing by to pick up on mortgage foreclosures."
Meanwhile, Schlossman decided to bank on the trend.
In 1968, he announced plans to build an $11 million regional shopping center between Fargo and West Fargo.
The location next to Interstates 29 and 94 was so remote the building had to be fireproof because it sat between the jurisdiction of the Fargo and West Fargo fire departments.
When the mall opened with a final construction cost of more than $15 million, it was the largest privately-funded building in North Dakota.
The Forum covered the opening Aug. 2, 1972, with 20 stories, including a lead story that began:
West Acres: $15 million Bazaar on the Prairie
A wheatfield mirage ... a glittering whiteness beneath a hot Dakota sun. With a racing construction schedule, it almost seems to have popped out of the black Valley soil like a mushroom after a rain.
And some businesses disappeared from downtown like rainbows after a storm, with retailers looking for a pot of gold at West Acres.
After decades downtown, Sears and deLendrecie's abandoned their stores in favor of the mall, which was a warning to city leaders, an editorial in The Forum said.
"The fact that Sears has announced that it is willing to locate on the other side of Interstate 29 in relation to downtown should impress upon Fargo civic leaders that they are losing the battle to save downtown Fargo unless and until they provide the traffic corridors necessary to bring potential customers in from the fringe areas to the main business center."
By the time West Acres opened, spinoff businesses already included a 199-room Holiday Inn and the Westgate Village apartments, the embryonic stage of the business explosion continuing today on the southwest edge of Fargo.
Ironically, Schlossman picked the site near the interstates after city leaders rejected his proposal to build the mall downtown.
Across the Red River, Moorhead city leaders latched onto the idea for a downtown mall as a way to revitalize its decaying business district.
They decided in 1971 to raze the old and begin anew, with the Moorhead Center Mall at its core. A new four-story City Hall anchored the mall, which was built in phases from 1973 to 1977.
With all the new construction, the finger-pointing eventually began, with cries of Mall X stealing business from Mall Y and all malls stealing business from downtowns.
Downtown merchants began grudgingly admitting they could feel the sting of malls on the fringes of town.
"I could have shot a cannon with scattershot ... and not hurt very many people," a downtown Fargo retailer said during a Christmas shopping season. "It didn't used to be that way. But I guess things change."
In 1977, Moorhead city leaders began to seek a bigger chunk of the area's retail pie. They annexed land on the east edge of town in anticipation of the $6 million EasTen Mall.
Only Kmart materialized then, with plans for the rest of the mall going forward in 1990.
"I think we're expanding the market," developer Rick Jordahl said in 1990. "West Acres is 'event' shopping. I don't think middle America goes to West Acres once a week."
As the business climate and times changed, some local malls have tried to reinvent themselves to fill a niche in the market.
They've switched from indoor malls into strip malls, catered to office space, carpeted hallways, demolished stores and added incentives to draw retailers.
And more malls continue to be built - with Schlossman's son following in his father's footsteps.
This year Jeff Schlossman opened the first phase of Pioneer Center in West Fargo, which is expected to have about 50,000 square feet and 30 tenants in several buildings.
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